By Moira Cue
In 1978, James Alan McPherson became the first
African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was
not the first African-American to win a Pulitzer; twenty-eight
years prior (in 1950) Gwendolyn Brooks was awarded Pulitzer Prize
in Poetry for “Annie Allen.” But ten years before
McPherson’s Elbow Room won the category, a novel about the
only successful slave rebellion in United States history, William
Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, won the 1968
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction creating a lasting controversy.
I’m glad I picked up my copy of the book from a used book
store downtown without doing any online research
about the text, the author, or literary criticism that took aim
at the book’s conceit; This novel aims to construct fiction
over the loose framework of history’s pentimento. Depending
on which of the following details about Styron I’d heard
first, it might’ve predisposed me one way or the other to
interpret the book not as a work of art, but as a defendant in
the court of political correctness.
Coming to the book with as much of an open mind as possible, I nonetheless did something very unusual and found myself compelled to pause the narrative and skip forward to Styron’s Afterword, written for the novel’s twenty-fifth anniversary. I will relate to you two facts about the author in the opposite order in which he revealed them: 1. Styron was a friend and contemporary of James Baldwin. 2. Styron’s birthplace was less than one hundred miles from the site of the infamous 1831 rebellion; His own grandmother had been a slave owner. To paraphrase the author’s words, Styron had always been fascinated by the event, and researched Nat Turner’s actual confessions, using the historical text as a starting place to create a rich first-person account of how and why Nat Turner lead a group of men to slaughter fifty-five slave-owning whites in an attempt to lead other slaves to revolt and overthrow the tyrannical system.
Styron’s book was considered by some Black writers (though James Baldwin was not amongst them) to be racist. Based on a blind reading of the narrative, I don’t think the accusation is fair—the book exposes the ugly attitudes of slave owning whites. The narrator's keen perception of the routine, institutionalized dehumanization of slavery kind of makes you root for Nat. (Though you realize Nat was psychologically disturbed.) I think the accusations are the result of wishing the book had been written by anyone other than the descendant of a slave owner, or that it had been awarded the Pulitzer after an African-American had received the award in the same category.
The massacre is told as a flashback while he awaits execution in Jerusalem, Virginia. The fictional Nat of this novel shares characteristics with the historical Nat known or supposed to be accurate: He was literate in a time when slaves were not considered “able” to learn to read or write, he saw visions and felt called by God to do what he did, and he only confesses to killing one of the fifty-five white victims himself; a young, virginal belle. In Styron’s version of events, this young woman is one Nat felt a conflicted attraction toward, and her naiveté and condescending attitude, which emasculates Nat, changes Nat’s lust into hatred and fuels his rampage. Nat’s remorse for killing Margaret that undermines his revolt; he fails to kill a young fourteen year old girl who runs away and alerts others, so that Nat’s troops are met with resistance which leads ultimately to his defeat and demise.
The majority of the book consists of Nat’s first person account of his early history and his thoughts and actions leading up to the massacre. Though Nat’s owner is against slavery, and allows him to learn to read and write and even learn a craft during his childhood, Nat’s proximity to knowledge also fuels his rage. Nat fully understands that he can be bought and sold, that he is a piece of property to his owner—whose liberal views for the time and place still put whites as a class above other races. Styron also gives historical nods to the whites’ reaction to Nat’s uprising: Hundreds of blacks who were not involved were murdered in retaliation, and laws were passed to suppress learning amongst the slaves. Yet reading Nat’s inner thoughts, memories, and perceptions one sees that slavery, now matter how “benevolent,” one master was compared to others, is founded on so vile a pretension—the presumed right for one living person to own another—as to make murder seem almost noble.
Of all the characters Styron creates in this book, none are more developed and multi-dimensional than Nat—we see his private world view exclusively, and it is unique, often startling, and compelling from one page to the next. Just because the author of the book was a white man isn’t a good enough reason not to read this book. And if you want to read more fictional works steeped in African-American history written by African-Americans, the list of Pulitzer winners today includes Edward P. Jones (The Known World, 2004) as well as Alice Walker's, The Color Purple (1983) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1988) all of which will be covered in future reviews.
© 2011, Moira Cue for The Hollywood Sentinel